The Mental Ramifications of Sailing a Small Boat Alone Around the World

 

Eric Loss ’08, a self-portrait

On July 22, Eric Loss ’08 finished his nonstop solo voyage around the world. During his journey, Loss’ 35-year-old sailboat, the Odyssey, didn’t just capsize once in rough seas, but three times.

But after his first terrifying night in a storm off of Cape Horn, Loss said he began to downplay the frightening seas that he, increasingly serenely, sailed his 36-foot boat through.

“The first real storm I got going into Cape Horn was absolutely terrifying. I had a bad knockdown at midnight, and I was too afraid to go on deck, so I spent the whole night lying in my bed, staring at the ceiling, hoping nothing would go wrong,” he described recently by phone from his home in Laguna Beach, Calif. “It was interesting to see my transition later in the trip. It became a lot more routine. [I’d say,] ‘Oh, here’s a gale. I’ll just power through’.”

While Loss says he’s unsure whether he underwent any major transformations from his trip, he does concede that he got better at grappling with the “mental ramifications” of sailing a little craft in atrocious weather, alone. “I certainly learned a lot … about how to deal with the mental issues of sailing small boats,” he said and laughed.

Packing for an Eight-month Sea Voyage
Eric Loss ’08 said he packed two sets of everything: wool long-underwear, sweaters, t-shirts, etc., in bags. He brought on board 1,600 to 1,700 pounds of food, all of it nonperishable. “I filled [the boat’s] fridge with jars of pickles and things,” he said. He also brought rice, pasta, quinoa and other grains, and lots of canned food, storing them in plastic storage bins bolted to the boat.

Water, meanwhile, “was a whole adventure in and of itself,” he said. The boat came with only one 25-gallon tank, so Loss added two extra 50-gallon bladder tanks. But these popped early on, and Loss coped by collecting rainwater and using saltwater for washing his clothes and dishes.

Loss left for his trip Nov. 7, 2011, making his way down the coast California, around the tip of South America, south of Africa, Australia and New Zealand and east across the Pacific, before turning north to home. During his many long days in the southerly seas, he spied albatrosses of various varieties, storm petrels, shearwaters, sharks, dolphins and monstrous swells that rose as high as 30 feet, with crests half-a-mile long.

Throughout, he kept a blog, S/V Odyssey, which he updated every couple of days through a dial-up connection. Loss says he initially started the online journal to keep his parents and friends informed of his travels, but eventually it became less a communication device and more a private bulwark for him. “It morphed into more of a support mechanism for me,” he said. “Writing is a good way for me to vent, to feel like there is some kind of purpose to things — it’s a good way to interpret what happened that day.”

The global circumnavigation took Loss 240 days, with an unplanned two-and-a-half week stop in Chile to look into what Loss thought was worrisome damage to his mast (it turned out not to be a problem). After departing from the Chilean port, the 26-year-old was completely solitary and did not touch land again until he came home.

“It was the hardest part for the first week or two, leaving L.A. and then Chile,” he said. “That first week or two, that was really tough mentally, but after two or three weeks, it sort of didn’t matter any more. There’s not a whole lot of difference being alone, long-distance sailing between week three, week 10, week 30,” he said.

An albatross at sunset, photo by Eric Loss

It wasn’t boredom that was Loss’ mental hardship. He had up to 80 paperbacks and two kindles, and plowed through Moby Dick and a “number of trashy detective novels.” And he always had something to do on the boat, like fixing things or cooking. Plus, he added, “I can stand and watch the ocean for hours at a time.”

Rather, his psychological burdens came in the form of loneliness and self-doubt, at least initially. “There was a little bit of wondering if I was crazy,” he conceded, and he also admitted to feeling some fear during his first days at sea.

Since he was a child, Loss had dreamed of circling the globe in a sailboat, a dream reinforced by the many adventurous sailing tales he read. He learned how to sail when he was eight, worked as a sailing instructor in high school and sailed competitively for Bowdoin’s team. Although he majored in computer science at Bowdoin, he says that on his boat, he keeps it simple, forgoing fancy integrated GPS systems for paper charts. “At least when it comes to sailing, I’m a Luddite.”

After graduating from Bowdoin, Loss sailed boats in the Caribbean for a company that offers semesters at sea on sailing vessels for college students. By last summer, he felt it was time to move on. He left his job, his life yawned open, and in the autumn he made his break to sail the world. He bought and outfitted his boat with as much as 3,500 pounds of gear and food. And, “I decided to make it harder, to do it nonstop,” he said.

Since coming home, Loss has been relaxing, watching the Olympics and “eating anything and everything I can get my hands on that isn’t out of a can,” he wrote in his blog. He’s thinking about finding a job sailing big boats, 70- to 120-feet, perhaps a research vessel or training boat. While he’s relieved to be home — and is in no “hurry to go off and spend eight months” by himself — he does at times miss his pelagic life. “There is a certain rhythm, a simple nice routine of the days,” he said. “And time really blurs. … It becomes difficult to say that bird you saw or the iceberg you saw was three days ago or 10 days ago.”

Loss says one of his favorite moments occurred late in the trip as he was sailing north, homeward bound. “It had been a miserable bunch of weeks, wet and rough. The night I crossed the equator, it was a gorgeous moonlit night, and a pack of dolphins were playing on the bow, all lit up by phosphorus,” he recalled. “They like to check out the boat, they’ll come and play for a while. They love playing along the bow of the boat because it creates a pressure wave and they can surf on it almost.”

Comments

  1. Dick Burns '58 says:

    As a not so terrific a sailor, I found Eric Loss’ story fascinating. Oh, to be 50 years younger and capable of such a feat.

    I am curious, though, about the specs of his boat. It would be great if you would run a follow-up piece that gave your readers the boat’s specs, age, where built, etc.

  2. Rebecca Goldfine says:

    From Eric Loss:
    The Boat is a 1977 Islander 36 Tall Rig, built in Southern California
    – (I believe Costa Mesa, but I could be mistaken). She is 36′ LOA,
    28′ LWL, with an 11′ beam, and displaces approximately 15,000 lbs.
    (probably closer to 18,000 fully loaded when I left LAX) The boat is
    a fairly moderate design, with a fin keel and skeg-hung rudder, and is
    very well balanced on all points of sail. My boat (and most I-36’s)
    are equipped with wheel steering, but I wish that I had converted it
    to tiller steering for the trip. The boat was steered for all but
    about 6-8 hours of the trip by my monitor windvane. The boat has a
    35-ish hp Perkins 4-108 diesel, which I ran for a total of 20 hours
    during the circumnavigation, mainly for maneuvering inside harbors and
    some frustrated motoring on the way to Valparaiso – From Valparaiso to
    LA I only ran the engine 5 hours, just to keep everything lubed up and
    rust-free. I have a slab-reefing mainsail, and for most of the trip
    used a cut-down Catalina 38 main that I found in a Dumpster at the
    marina, and a roller furling jib. In the southern Ocean I carried a
    95% jib on the furler, and in calmer waters had a 130% genoa. I also
    carried a drifter & symmetrical spinnaker for light air, which I used
    extensively in the doldrums and in the south pacific high on my way to
    Chile, but only once in the southern ocean because the waves caused
    too much chafe when the wind was down. The boat held up well for its
    age and the severity of the trip – certainly had some issues, but
    nothing too serious. I hope this is enough of a blurb – Reading
    through my blogs of the trip will give a better idea of specific
    issues and happenings related to the boat, but will take some digging.
    -Eric

  3. Great story of an amazing accomplishment. Thanks for the particulars about the boat and equipment. The sailors out here love hearing about this.

  4. Margaret Belmonte says:

    Amazing!

  5. Charlie Dewell says:

    Congratulations on such a magnificant feat. I would expect you would be a changed man in many respects. Awesome accomplishment!

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